Challenging the mind and body

High-wire art tweaks our perceptions

Email|Print| Text size + By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / November 29, 2007

The day after Thanksgiving, I went for a tightrope walk.

It's probably not the best way to work off excess calories, but it commands a keen, calm inner focus that cuts right through the haze sometimes induced by too much food and a day spent with the entire family.

Artist Wendy Jacob has installed a tightrope in the Wolk Gallery at the MIT School of Architecture + Planning as part of her exhibition "Between Spaces." Earlier in the fall, she invited a professional tightrope walker to perform, walking the 38-foot practice tightwire in the gallery, then stepping out the window and crossing 6 feet to an MIT library, over a 30-foot drop.

The performance, which lasted only minutes, was the exhibition's main event. A video of it runs in the gallery. People leaned out the gallery windows and over the library's railings to watch. Jacob had turned a public space intended for contemplation and study into a gathering place for people to marvel at a circus act.

Jacob's work wittily explores the meeting of the body and architecture. She likes to tweak expectations of spaces. Two years ago on Thanksgiving, she ran a tightwire through the living room of a home in Cambridge and had a performer cross it while the family dined in the next room. Spectacle intersected with domesticity.

During rehearsals at MIT, Jacob said in an interview, something similar happened. The tightrope walker crossed the chasm into the library, and students working there pretty much ignored her.

"Nobody noticed," Jacob said. "She was focused. They were focused."

That focus is the axle around which the wheel of Jacob's work turns. She provokes it in visitors who test the tightwire themselves. A gallery attendant will assist you. The walk, which is perhaps a little more than a foot off the floor, requires contemplative concentration, a refreshing meld of focus and fluidity.

The artist has also installed several "Squeeze Chairs." Sit down, and the chair inflates around you, holding you. Jacob says a Rhode Island treatment program for autistic children uses the chairs to help calm kids. If walking the tightrope rattles your nerves, you can soothe yourself in a Squeeze Chair.

With both bodies of work, Jacob assertively locates the viewer in his or her own body. Even when walking a tightrope, that's grounding.

Intricate illusions
Fred H.C. Liang's paintings grow more dazzlingly intricate. His works at Bernard Toale Gallery feature layers of painting, drawing, and silkscreen over a fresco-like ground. He creates a whirling armature of illusionary space. The form requires technical precision; a few of the works merely blur into confusion.

"High Water Everywhere" stands out, with the layers going from black to white in degrees of blue. The white skirting over the surface reads like a translucent carpet of blossoms skimming atop a deep pond filled with eddies and plant life, pinwheels, and fish scales. Likewise, "Descending Night" breathes deeply in one corner of simple gray ground. The rest reads like a gathering storm, electric with gestures and flitting with pale lily pads of color, until at the center black drops like a cloud of ink expanding in water.

Sculptor Greg Mencoff, also at Toale, carves simple forms with mildly undulating faces out of basswood, then paints them with matte enamel. The surfaces of these wall-mounted sculptures whisper with shadows and sometimes intriguing edges where pieces don't fit perfectly together.

They project off the wall, and their backings read like core samples - layers of different woods; keyholes cut out here and filled in there. These have gotten more complex in this new body of work, suggesting kinks and puzzles beneath the surface. At the same time, Mencoff forfeits the Zenlike simplicity that was so appealing about his earlier pieces, which were objects of contemplation. These are more like objects of study.

'Paradise' lost
"Almost Paradise," a spotty painting show at LaMontagne Gallery, doesn't hold together in part because the utopia/dystopia theme is too loose. Much of the work in the show is good; it just doesn't seem to have anything to do with the art beside it. Daniel Heidkamp's bold, unsettling, apocalyptic paintings, such as "Sunset at the End of the Industrial Age," tie together natural beauty and human perversity, but are his pristine and unnerving canvases depicting bored pregnant women eating really about paradise?

Cristina Toro builds flat, tropical-toned scenes out of patterns. Pulsating and hallucinatory, these works pull together plants, sock puppets, and teddy bears without making much narrative sense. Instead, they seem to have some shamanic or ritual aim, with their morphing creatures and odd symmetry.

Jo Jackson's dark paintings are a perplexing assembly of symbols, from playing cards to skeleton keys to representations of Yves Klein's living brushes - half-paintbrush, half-person - trading on Klein's early death at 34 to make work that's too fraught and too mysterious. Finally, Erika Somogyi makes watercolors that are technically deft but dripping with sentimentality. It's an odd, stressed group.

Wendy Jacob: Between Spaces

At: Wolk Gallery, MIT School of Architecture + Planning, Room 7-338, 77 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, through Dec. 21. 617-258-9106,

Fred H. C. Liang: Inkpond

Greg Mencoff : 412 Ounces

At: Bernard Toale Gallery, 450 Harrison Ave., through Dec. 22. 617-482-2477,

Almost Paradise

At: LaMonagne Gallery, 51 Melcher St., through Dec. 22. 617-482-8400,

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